Wendy Alexander is Vice-Principal (International) at the University of Dundee

David Pilsbury is Chief Development Officer at Oxford International Education Group

In a sector where “identity” is so important – we cast ourselves as imaginative scholars, free thinkers, and proud autonomous institutions – we should be courageous enough to ask ourselves challenging questions, not least how to engage more effectively with the migration debate.

Brexit demonstrated that identity is also core for many voters. Post Brexit and the pandemic, as cost-of-living issues have bitten, migration has been elevated, often by politicians, as a contributory factor compounding standard of living anxieties, particularly for those on low wages.

The political significance of this issue was most recently reinforced by the fact the PM’s first tweet of the year was about removing dependents for the majority of students, given the new rule that came in 1 Jan.

Legions of economists would rightly contest simplistic analyses of the impact of migration. But it is incontestable that the political saliency of migration is rising for Governments around the world.

In the closing weeks of 2023, three of the four main destination countries (UK, Canada, and Australia) have all floated new restrictive measures for international students who are a key component of net migration in each of these territories.

We need to engage with the realities of this issue, with evidence.

That means dealing properly with the implications of students becoming a more significant component of the net migration number and the greater propensity of students to use the graduate route – notwithstanding, the softening of demand for the UK and the passing of the bulge in Master’s students who came as part of a UK post pandemic bubble and before the rules on dependents changed.

Encouragingly fewer in the sector are railing against the iniquities of including students in the net migration figure when it’s a UN definition applied extensively around the world. However, there is still a tendency for the sector to talk to itself, shouting into our own echo chamber rather than providing data to back our case.

The risk is that the public and government, of whatever political complexion, will simply stop listening to what we have to say.

Committee says so

Those who find time to read the MAC annual report will find is reasonable and, crucially, reasoned. The narrative is coherent, and the analysis is clear and consistent.

One issue the MAC surfaces is that we simply don’t have the data to establish the full costs and benefits of students with dependents to the UK if they make use of the graduate route.

When we are creating a more mass international student market we cannot rely on the habitual “heroic researcher rationale” for the current more diverse and significant cohort.

And ironically as a result of the dependent ban, we simply cannot know if the transformative individuals who might change the UK forever through their scholarship, invention or future economic contribution will no longer choose the UK.

The MAC data on the type of institutions new students are choosing has also not been part of the sector debate in the way it needs to be, with recent international student growth (and graduate route take up) concentrated in lowest quartile on fees and tariff, reflecting the price sensitivity of the new cohorts.

Notwithstanding the ending of the right to have accompanying dependents for non-research degrees (though it may return for certain “quality” institutions) we still need to develop plans at local level that ensure the effective provision of local public services, student accommodation etc.

We need more sophisticated modelling supported by government that assesses the financial contribution from students and which captures the ancillary costs of their studies.

Likewise, the anticipated returns longer term, and how that might be estimated given some international students remain in the UK, for variable periods, whilst others return to their home country or other global locations.

The detail matters

Interrogating these issues is why the Independent Higher Education Commission (IHEC) was created to look in a balanced way at the opportunities and the challenges. IHEC has championed the need to re-win the argument with government, and indeed voters, about the vital role of International Education.

This means establishing a clear narrative, but more importantly clear evidence, around social, cultural, and economic impact; how international students influence the learning and student experience of domestic students; and the wider links to the international research and knowledge exchange roles of universities.

There are many worthy reports that address these issues individually, but the sector has yet to bring these elements together into a single, consistent, and compelling evidenced narrative to engage with those that have a different view. Simply ignoring the legitimate challenge of those who have a contrary view is neither sustainable, nor effective and not worthy of the sector’s ambition.

The Commission has focused on a holistic approach – collecting evidence, foregrounding issues, and making meaningful recommendations, and we have ensured the student voice is central to the discourse.

The Commission began by drawing attention to the massive changes in source and type of student coming to the UK, we were the first to identify the high non-continuation rates in some segments of the student body, we have highlighted the importance of Internationalisation at Home for all students, and most recently we have identified the unrealised opportunities around Transnational Education.

Our most recent report on TNE notes that it is essential that we mainstream TNE for the “right” reasons, not because onshore recruitment is heading into the “too difficult” box. It’s not an “either or” decision, rather a reflection of the need to create a balanced portfolio of activity.

TNE will never replace the financial, operational, and academic contributions of onshore delivery, but it can facilitate multiple agendas as part of a sophisticated global engagement framework. Today almost every UK university is involved in TNE with more than 550,000 TNE students enrolled with 162 UK universities in 230 countries and territories.

However, the belief that TNE is now a central part of the educational mainstream is belied by the fact that very few universities have more than 10,000 registered TNE students. The challenge for many is how to develop partnerships at scale, and how to ensure that the appropriate people, plans, and processes are in place to crystalise opportunities.

It is inevitable that offshore delivery will overtake onshore provision soon, whatever the UK Government does or doesn’t do in response to net migration trends and the associated softening of demand for onshore delivery in the UK. Our estimate is that just rolling forward current activities will see TNE enrolments hit 1 million in 2030.

Consequently, TNE must be taken seriously. For too long, it has been treated as the poor relation to onshore student recruitment. In part, this was driven by the policy framework of the previous IES, however the different financial dynamics of TNE (typically lower margin) is also a major factor.

Yet, we live in changing times, and we must adapt. The development at rapid pace of new forms of learning, accelerated by the emergence of AI, creates a myriad of new opportunities for offshore learning. The UK sector are participants in both a global education market and a global international education race. If we stand still, we will miss the opportunities TNE presents, and the UK misses the opportunity to be an international leader in this field.

To reiterate, we are not suggesting a replay of 2013 when the Government was clearly promoting TNE as an alternative to onshore delivery because of a toxic migration debate. The current context is set by a global landscape where many nations are looking to deepen the diversity and capacity of their own higher education offer. The desire for more equitable partnerships and new financial models (supported by hybrid delivery), the growing imperatives of climate change, and the common language of the SDGs, are all new and exciting parts of the landscape.

Looking ahead

The final report of the Commission, due in January, will bring together the evidence and discussion over the past year to make a series of wide-ranging recommendations. The need for better and more timely data will be clearly articulated, along with practical proposals to achieve greater data visibility, even if government is slow to act.

We will comment on the role of the Office for Students in the context of the calls for the return of HEFCE, voiced at the recent Wonkhe Festival of HE. And we will make recommendations around enhancing the graduate route and the associated data architecture to demonstrate that it is fit for purpose and supports sectoral diversity ambitions.

HolonIQ estimates that tertiary education will grow by around 30 per cent over the next 10 years. The commission’s report will challenge UK HE about our level of ambition, how to get there and how important an actor we want to be on the global stage?

The UK sector can be a niche, elite player attracting the brightest and best globally, or a broadly based and diverse global provider?

Those two world views of the UK’s role in global higher education are increasingly colliding. It is time to define the vision, back it with evidence and engage with the hard reality of the increasing politicisation of higher education globally.

2 responses to “How to respond to the PM’s pride in his international dependant ban

  1. It is correct to approach this issue with nuance, as it isn’t anywhere near as clear cut as both sides claim.

    The government chose to introduce the graduate visa and make it easier for people to bring dependents to the UK to make the UK a more attractive destination for international students. It’s completely unreasonable to blame students for doing exactly what the government wanted them to do, just because the plan was too successful and massively increased international students.

    That being said, most of the growth in international students numbers was concentrated in the cheapest quarter of 1 year master’s degree courses (which grew to be 4.5 times the size they were before on average), whereas the most expensive half of 1 year master’s degrees and undergraduate degrees have seen no benefit. This means the increase is mostly students paying about £15,000 a year. Once you factor in fees to agents and a high drop out rate (25% for Indian and Bangladeshi students), it isn’t obvious that this makes universities more money than charging British students £9,250. Furthermore, most of the universities that have increased their international student numbers significantly have cut the number of British students; although it’s not clear if they’re choosing to recruit fewer British students or they’re struggling to recruit them as the Russell Group universities expand.

    It’s often claimed by the sector that nearly all international students leave on graduation so shouldn’t be counted towards net immigration figures. This used to be true, but now it couldn’t be further from the truth.

    2 years after entry to the UK on a student visa:
    Intake year ending June 2018: 4% switched to another visa category; 65% emigrated; 30% still studying (or a dependent of a student)
    Intake year ending June 2021: 27% switched to another visa category; 33% emigrated; 40% still studying (or a dependent of a student)

    About half of the students who have switched to another visa category have switched to the graduate visa (so we’d expect maybe 2/3 of them to have left the UK within two years when their graduate visa expires; with the other 1/3 switching to another visa type, assuming the graduate visa sees similar outcomes to the post study work visa), but the other half have switched to long-term visas.

    There are many positives of immigration and the increased immigration represents young, English speaking graduates who can integrate very easily into UK society. So in many respects they are the perfect immigrants. There is one big negative though and that is that the immigration is very geographically concentrated in only a few locations near universities, so most of the country misses out on the benefits of the immigration but the areas that do get the benefits end up with a major housing shortage, which as they’re university areas also harms students, (plus many of these areas often don’t have enough skilled jobs to ensure the immigrants get to achieve their full potential and they often end up working in lower skilled jobs).

    It’s a very difficult one, the increase in international students that stay after graduation could be very beneficial if we can promote internal migration and build a lot more housing. But it’s clear that it can only be a partial solution to the financial challenges that the sector is facing and so the government will at some point need to either increase fees or funding to universities.

  2. ‘Consequently, TNE must be taken seriously.’

    Absolutely. An interesting article and link to the IHEC paper which has some good suggestions.

    This ENQA paper ‘Protecting the interests of students on transnational education programmes: the role of transparent quality assurance’ may be of interest in that context.


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